Digital History

Pre-Civil War American Culture

The American Renaissance Previous Next
Digital History ID 3552



The 1840s and 1850s witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of literary creativity as American writers abandoned their subservience to foreign models and created a distinctly American literature.

During his lifetime, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) received far more notoriety from his legendary dissipation than from his poetry or short stories. Poe was raised by a Richmond, Virginia, merchant after his father abandoned the family and his mother died. For two years he went to the University of Virginia and briefly attended West Point, but drinking, gambling debts, and bitter fights with his guardian cut short his formal education. At the age of 24, he married a 13-year-old second cousin, who died a decade later of tuberculosis, brought on by cold and starvation. Found drunk and unconscious in Baltimore in 1849, Poe died at the age of 40.

Sorely underappreciated by contemporaries, Poe invented the detective novel; edited the Southern Literary Messenger, one of the country’s leading literary journals; wrote incisive essays on literary criticism; and produced some of the most masterful poems and frightening tales of horror ever written. His literary techniques inspired a number of important French writers, including Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry. Poe said that his writing style consisted of “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful colored into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought into the strange and mystical.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850), one of America’s towering works of fiction, did not consider himself a novelist. He wrote “romances,” he insisted--imaginative representations of moral problems, rather than novelistic depictions of social realities. A descendant of one of the Salem witch-trial judges, the Salem-born Hawthorne grew up in a somber and solitary atmosphere. His father, a sea captain, perished on a voyage when his son was just 4 years old, and Hawthorne’s mother spent the remainder of her life in mourning. After attending Bowdoin College, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce were among his classmates, he began to write. It would not be until 1837, however, when he published Twice-Told Tales, that the 33-year-old Hawthorne first gained public recognition. He lived briefly at Brook Farm and participated in the transcendentalist circle, but did not share their idealistic faith in humanity’s innate goodness.

Hawthorne was a secretive, painfully shy man. But no pre–Civil War author wrote more perceptively about guilt--sexual, moral, and psychological. “In the depths of every human heart,” he wrote in an early tale, “there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, the revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide.” In his fiction, Hawthorne, more than any other early 19th century American writer, challenged the larger society’s faith in science, technology, progress, and humanity’s essential goodness. Many of his greatest works project 19th century concerns--about women’s roles, sexuality, and religion--onto 17th century Puritan settings. Some of his stories examine the hubris of scientists and social reformers who dare tamper with the natural environment and human nature.

Herman Melville (1819–1891), author of Moby Dick (1851), possibly America’s greatest romance, had little formal education and claimed that his intellectual development did not begin until he was 25. By then, he had already seen his father go bankrupt and die insane, worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, served as a common seaman on a whaling ship, deserted in the Marquessa Islands, escaped on an Australian whaler, and been imprisoned in Tahiti. He drew on these experiences in his first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), which were popular successes, but his third book Mardi (1849), a complex blend of political and religious allegory, metaphysics, and cosmic romance, failed miserably, foreshadowing the reception of his later works. Part of a New York literary circle called Young America, Melville dreamed of creating a novel as vast and energetic as the nation itself. In Moby Dick, he produced such a masterwork. Based on the tale of “Mocha-Dick,” a gigantic white whale that sank a whaling ship, Moby Dick combined whaling lore and sea adventure into an epic drama of human arrogance, producing an allegory that explores what happens to a people who defy divine limits. Tragically, neither Moby Dick nor Melville’s later works found an audience, and Melville spent his last years as a deputy customs collector in New York. He died in utter obscurity, and his literary genius was rediscovered only in the 1920s.

In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured in New York and called for a truly original American poet who could fashion verse out of “the factory, the railroad, and the wharf.” Sitting in Emerson’s audience was a 22-year-old New York printer and journalist named Walt Whitman (1819–1892). A carpenter’s son with only five years of schooling, Whitman soon became Emerson’s ideal of the Native American poet, with the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855. “A mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism,” Leaves of Grass was, wrote Emerson, “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Most reviewers, however, reacted scornfully to the book, deeming it “trashy, profane & obscene” for its sexual frankness. A sprawling portrait of America, encompassing every aspect of American life, from the steam-driven Brooklyn ferry to the use of ether in surgery, the volume opens not with the author’s name but simply with his daguerreotype (a forerunner of the photograph). Unconventional in style--Whitman invented “free verse” rather than use conventionally rhymed or regularly metered verse--the volume stands out as a landmark in the history of American literature for its celebration of the diversity, the energy, and the expansiveness of pre–Civil War America.

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